How to Be a Victorian

HowtobeVictorianDo you remember all the chatter a couple of months ago about the couple that decided to live like Victorians? The whole thing seemed silly to me (both the article and the backlash), but somewhere in the conversation someone mentioned Ruth Goodman, a historian who studies day-to-day life and sometimes immerses herself in the period with living history experiences of wearing the clothes and doing the work. Her book, How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life, sounded interesting—and it is!

In the book, Goodman walks readers through a day in the Victorian life, beginning with getting out of bed in a cold room where a bedside rug, no matter how small, is a necessity. And she moves through meals, the workday, leisure, and finally bedtime, noting at each stage how Victorians of different social classes, regions, and time periods within the era would have experienced those activities. It’s not an exhaustive history—Goodman notes up front that she follows her own interests—but she does avoid the idea that there was just one way of being Victorian.

The book is full of the types of facts that don’t get explained in books from the period (or even fiction set in the period). For instance, it never occurred to me that when valets brush men’s suits in movies that they’re actually practicing an form of dry cleaning. I assumed it was just lint brushing or smoothing out the fabric. But Goodman says that with the right brushes, she’s been able to clean fabric just as well as she might have if she’d sent them away to a dry cleaner. Regular Victorian laundry, on the other hand, sounds dreadful. Goodman goes into some detail about how complicated it was to do the family laundry and how much strength it took to carry the water and wet clothes.

Clothes are another important topic. Goodman discusses clothes for men and women, boys and girls. She writes a bit about her own experiences wearing Victorian garments and how they affected her posture and movement. She found some of the looser corsets reasonably comfortable and could understand why women would wear them. That’s one of the things I liked about this book. Goodman is respectful of Victorian choices without romanticizing the period or condemning them for their ignorance. For most the book, she simply describes how it was, sometimes including quotes from diaries of the period, and she shares some of her own experiences trying out bits and pieces of the Victorian life.

Goodman’s own experiences do not make up a huge portion of the book. This is not a stunt memoir about living like a Victorian for a year or anything like that. She refers to her experiences when they seem important in aiding readers’ understanding of what this aspect of Victorian life was like. This happens most often in the areas of clothing and chores. As someone previously unfamiliar with Goodman’s work, I would have appreciated a little more context about her experiences. I couldn’t get a sense of how often she did Victorian laundry or gardening or wore Victorian garments. It seemed like more than an afternoon, but was it a week or two? Did she try taking on all aspects of Victorian life or just try to understand one element at a time? Offering too much information of this type could have made the book about her and her experiences, however, and I’m glad she didn’t do that.

The book is well organized and readable, and although there are tons of facts and more information than I’ll ever remember, it’s not overwhelming. The structure keeps everything under control. This is a history of ordinary life, so there’s limited mention of famous personages and big events. They tend to come up when they touched ordinary life or when the notable people happened to offer good examples of the topic at hand. (For example, she opens the book with a description of what a morning in the home of Thomas and Jane Carlyle might have been like.) If this kind of history interests you, I certainly recommend this book. I learned a lot from it. Perhaps you will, too.

Posted in History, Nonfiction | 28 Comments

The Care and Feeding of My TBR–and a Little Dare for 2016

2015-11-22 07.18.30It’s been a while since I’ve written a topical post, and Elle recently tagged me in a set of questions about managing all those books to be read (i.e., the TBR pile). These are good questions, coming at a good time, so I’m giving it a whirl.

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

I currently keep a list on LibraryThing of the TBR books that I own. I also sometimes use a spreadsheet that includes books I got from publishers, ebooks, and library books. I say sometimes because it’s a tool that I sometimes find useful and sometimes find overwhelming and obnoxious and that requires too much time to manage. So I use it when I’m feeling the need for more organization and don’t bother when it seems like too much.

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

Truth be told, the numbers are probably equal, but I only bother to keep track of the print ones. I downloaded heaps of public domain books from Project Gutenberg when I got my e-reader, but they don’t take up space and didn’t cost me any money, so I mostly don’t give them much thought. Earlier this year, I decided to try to read one e-book for each book I read from my physical TBR. That lasted for about a month.

How do you determine which books from your TBR to read next?

If it’s a review copy, I try to read it within a month or so of its publication date, although I make no promises when accepting review copies (and I don’t accept that many). I’ve also tried this year to read new books shortly after purchasing them, while the conversation that led me to purchase them is still happening, but I haven’t held myself strictly to that.

Besides that, I start with the books that have been on my TBR the longest and go down the list until I find something appealing. I have a rule that I need to read all TBR books within 5 years of obtaining them. Otherwise, there’s no point in keeping them around. (The rule used to be four years but got bumped up to five last year because, well, you can probably guess.)

A book that has been on my TBR the longest?

CarmenCarmen and Other Stories by Prosper Mérimée, added in February 2011. I’ll be reading that early next year, if not sooner.

A book you recently added to your TBR?

I just got a copy of Slade House by David Mitchell through the LibraryThing Early Review program.

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?

MitfordHmm… this is difficult because I rarely buy books entirely for the cover. Perhaps the closest to being there entirely because of the cover are the two Nancy Mitford books, which I ordinarily would plan to get from the library. I got a beautiful Folio edition of Love in a Cold Climate from Thomas when he was cleaning out his bookcase a while back, and then I saw a matching edition of The Pursuit of Love on a bargain shelf at a used bookstore and couldn’t resist getting it. And, of course, now I think they’re too pretty to part with.

I also have a habit of always picking up green Viragos when I see them. I don’t always buy them, but I often will it they appeal to me at all. The same would apply if I were to come across a grey Persephone edition in the wild.

A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?

I intend to at least start reading them all, but I’m pretty quick to quit a book if it isn’t working for me, and there are a few books I’ll be surprised if I can finish. Most of these are books I got through a signed First Edition Book of the Month program at Politics and Prose. They had some great selections during the year I subscribed, but I really have no interested in Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson, and John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk really doesn’t look like my kind of book. Ditto Capital by John Lanchester. However, I paid good money for them, and you never know what will end up being great. I intend to give them a few chapters to win my over, but I’m skeptical.

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?

I also recently received a copy of Curtain Up: Agatha Christie: A Life in the Theatre by Julius Green, which I requested from a Harper Collins blogger e-mail because I’ve been in a couple of different Agatha Christie plays (and read lots of the others), and reading a book about her theatre career sounds like fun. It’s due to be published in December.

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?

They haven’t been recommended to me specifically, but everyone seems to love and recommend Americanah by Chimamandi Ngozi Adichie. And Jenny at Reading the End has recommended Joan Wyndham’s books many times, which is why I grabbed a copy of Love Lessons when it popped up on Paperback Swap last year. And Simon frequently recommends The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks and Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. (I believe he put the latter in my hands when we were book shopping during his visit to the U.S. a few years ago.)

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?

It’s not so much a specific book but specific authors. There are tons of authors that many of my friends seem to have read extensively, but that I’ve barely read at all. But I collect books by those authors anyway, assuming I’ll like them. So there’s Nancy Mitford, as noted above; Barbara Pym, whom I’ve only read once (and adored); Anita Brookner, whom I’ve also read only once; and Penelope Lively, whose books I’ve never read at all.

A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?

Oh, dear, so many! I’m really excited to read most of them… eventually. But let’s stick to something I anticipate reading soon. There’s Masculinity in Breaking Bad, an essay collection all about how the show approaches masculinity. I found that show really important for its spot-on depiction of a certain common type of American masculinity and the abusive dynamics that sometimes accompany it. LibraryThing offered this in a recent Early Reviewers giveaway, and I was glad to get a copy.

How many books are on your TBR shelf?

LibraryThing shows 179 on my print TBR shelf, and I know I have a couple to add. I used to want to keep it to 100 or fewer, but I guess that’s not happening. I would like it to all fit on a single bookcase, but that’s not happening either.


tbr-final-dareThis meme comes at a good time because today also marks the announcement of the TBR Triple Dog Dare with James Reads Books. The Dare (which James says he’s running for the last time) asks participants to commit to reading only books from their TBR Pile from January 1 to April 1. You can make exceptions for book club books or whatever else you want. You can even choose to participate for just one month.

Some years, I make lots of exceptions. Last year, for instance, the Tournament of Books was a big exception because I wanted to follow the competition. This time, however, I’m going to see if I can really commit to my TBR. I may even return whatever library books I still have out on January 1. (But between now and then, I’ll probably read only library books.) With a little luck and a lot of determination, I might be able to read the 20 unread books I acquired in 2011 and need to read or discard by the end of 2016. It’s a goal anyway.

All are welcome to join–just leave a comment on James’s sign-up post!


Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Comments

Challenger Deep

Challenger DeepFifteen-year-old Caden Bosch is on a journey. He doesn’t know when it started, and he doesn’t know where he’s bound. He’s on an old ship, filled with more young nameless crew mates and led by a one-eyed captain with a one-eyed parrot. Sometimes, however, he’s a teenage boy, living at home with his sister, creating video games with his friends, going out for the track team and then secretly quitting, and worrying that someone at school wants to kill him. Something in his mind has changed, and he doesn’t understand what’s happening:

Do you know how it feels, to be free from yourself and terrified by it? You feel both invincible and yet targeted, as if the world—as if the universe—doesn’t want you to feel this dizzying enlightenment. And you know there are forces out there that want to crush your spirit even as it expands like a gas filling all available space. Now the voices are loud and blaring in your head, almost as loud as your mother as she calls you down to dinner for the third time. You know it’s the third time even though you don’t remember hearing the first two times. Even though you don’t even remember going up to your room.

Neal Shusterman drew from his son Brendan’s experiences with schizoaffective disorder to write this National Book Award winner, and several of Brendan’s own sketches from when his was in the depths of his own illness are included in the book. It is a deeply compassionate novel that gives readers a very small sense of what it’s like to lose a grip on reality and live in a world that is real to you without being real to anyone else.

Some of the early chapters of the book were difficult for me to get a handle on (a problem shared by some of the members of the Pop Culture Happy Hour team, who discussed the book this week). The sections on board ship are so strange and nonsensical that I couldn’t find anything to make me want to read on. I knew, however, that the shipboard chapters were bound to eventually sync up with Caden’s real-life experiences, and the chapters set in the “real world” were compelling enough to keep me going. In those chapters, Shusterman shows how Caden’s thoughts become increasingly erratic and how those thoughts gradually lead to changes in behavior that gradually lead those who know him to react.

Eventually, Caden is admitted to an psychiatric unit for diagnosis and treatment, and it is during these chapters that Caden’s two worlds start to merge. This was also when I started to become really interested in the book. The story takes some extremely dark turns, darker than I expected, in fact, but it ends on a hopeful note. The hopefulness is, however, just as note. It’s clear that the danger is never totally gone, but it’s possible for Caden to let the danger pass him by for now, and each day he can do that is a victory.

I don’t think it’s possible to really know what it’s like to experience a mental illness without experiencing it yourself. But it is possible for those of us who haven’t faced it to understand it a little better through listening to others’ stories. Although Shusterman cannot give us the exact experience, he can give enough of a sense of it to elicit compassion. And that’s precisely what he does here.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction | 4 Comments

East of Eden

East of EdenWhen Leslie, Christy, and I decided to read East of Eden together, I thought, “No big deal. Steinbeck’s books aren’t that long, and they read quickly. I’ll polish it off in a couple of days.” If you’ve seen this chunkster, you know that I was making a silly assumption. But the book’s 600 pages move quickly, so it didn’t take me all that long to read it, so we could get together and talk about it. And there’s plenty to talk about!

East of Eden is the story of two families in Salinas, California. The Henderson family, with its Irish patriarch Sam, his wife Liza, and their nine children, is the narrator’s own family, and the book appears to be an attempt at a family history. However, the bulk of the attention is focused on the Trask family. A veteran of the Indian wars, Adam Trask spent his childhood in Connecticut, where he was frequently tormented by his brother Charles, who was jealous of their father Cyrus’s affection for Adam. After years of wandering and his sudden marriage to Cathy Ames, Adam decides to go to California and buy land and build a dream.

Cathy had previously turned up on Adam’s doorstep, battered almost to death. Her history is a secret, but we know that she has a long history of manipulation and even murder. After giving birth to twins, she leaves Adam and eventually, under an assumed name, takes over a local whorehouse. Devastated, Adam cannot bring himself to care for or even name the twins, leaving their early care in the hands of the Chinese servant, Lee. Lee, with the help of neighbor Sam Henderson, eventually pulls Adam out of his despair, and he chooses the names Caleb and Aron for the boys. Their history becomes the focus of the book, with digressions into Henderson family lore.

There is so much happening in this book that it’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll start with Cathy as she probably stands out the most. Shortly after her introduction, I was wary of Steinbeck’s treatment of her. As she plotted and schemed, I tried to turn it around and see her perspective. Was her violence born of desperation? Are we getting a misogyny-laced false narrative? Is she being depicted this way because she values sex? Is this a condemnation of women’s sexuality? Is it possible to see her as anything other than a plain-dealing villain? If there is, I didn’t find it. She’s simply utterly unable to see any value in goodness or caring for another person. She seeks out evil and unleashes it where she can or treasures it up for later use. If you’re inclined to diagnose fictional characters, psychopathy or sociopathy? Watching her work is both a pleasure (because, oh so dramatic!) and a horror.

I was for a while troubled about the fact that the lone female with any narrative significance was so vile, but the novel eventually introduces a woman named Abra, and her presence (as well as her sexuality) redresses the imbalance. She’s a picture of good womanhood that isn’t all about being chaste. The final chapters show her coming into her own, both as a woman and as a force within the narrative.

Besides Abra, another force for good in the novel is Lee, the servant who makes a home for the Trasks. Early on, he speaks in pidgin English, and I was really worried about Steinbeck’s treatment of him, but it turns out the Lee is playing a game, giving the white people what they expect.

Lee is one of the characters who gives voice to the book’s central metaphor, the story of Cain and Abel. I was glad to see the characters discuss this story outright and even discuss their roles in it because Steinbeck is not even a little bit subtle about it. He messes around with it a little, having Adam become the wanderer while his brother Charles stays home, but it’s obviously straight-up Cain and Abel all over again. And the pattern continues with Aron and Caleb, a possibility that Lee and Adam acknowledge. If Steinbeck had tried to pull this off without owning what he was doing, I would have found the lack of subtlety hard to take. Somehow, his spelling it all out made it more tolerable. And the conversation surrounding the biblical story is essential to the book’s ending.

And such a lovely ending it is. At heart, I think this is a book about growing up, about a family growing up as a country grows up. These are people who need to put aside their appetites and urges and learn to live together. The final line is one of possibility, of putting aside the past and turning toward what may be in the future. Although some might find it over the top, I was moved by the hope in it.

You’ll probably note that despite saying at the outset that this was a book about two families, I’ve scarcely addressed the Hendersons at all. Their story had some great and terrible moments, but they mostly amounted to a series of anecdotes interspersed in the epic tale of the Trasks. Their story, too, is about growing up and stepping away from the past, but the steps are not nearly so dramatic. Although I enjoyed some of their story, the novel would survive their being cut.

But despite the superfluousness of the Hendersons’ story, this book never felt too long. It’s engaging all the way through. It’s been too long since I’ve read any of Steinbeck’s other books to be sure how to rank it among his others, but I’d probably put it near the top.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Historical Fiction | 10 Comments


SpeakStephen R. Chinn, writing a memoir from prison in 2040, has lost his freedom, having been convicted of creating artificial life. Gaby White has lost the ability to move and can only speak by conversing with a chatbot through a computer. Her story lives in the conversations with Mary3, presented as testimony in Chinn’s trial, show her attempt to understand her state (and perhaps Mary3’s attempts to understand herself as well). Back in the 1960s, Karl and Ruth Dettman exchange letters about their growing distance from each other, as Karl becomes immersed in and then abandons a computerized mind. In a series of letters, computer scientist Alan Turing reaches out to the parents of his friend Christopher Morcom as he worries and later grieves over his friend. Mary Bradford keeps a journal of her crossing the ocean to America in the 1660s, a journal later edited by Ruth Dettman. And an unnamed speaker, transported across the desert, contains them all:

These are my voices. Which of them has the right words for this movement into the desert? I sift through their sentences. They are my people, the family that raised me. I opened on them, then closed. Open, shut. I swallowed them whole. They are in me now, in every word that I speak, as long as I am still living.

I am inclined to love epistolary novels and books that include fragments of found documents and the like, and Speak by Louisa Hall is a good example of the form and how it can work well. The characters, mostly writing for themselves or audiences who know them or their situation, don’t spell out everything that has happened to them but focus instead on their feelings about their situation. The reader has to do the work of figuring it all out. (Chinn’s memoir is the closest thing we get to a straight narrative of events.) I enjoy the puzzle aspect of this kind of book, but Hall is offering more than a puzzle to solve. The letters and journal entries and so forth combine to form a sort of meditation on what it means to be alive and in relationship with another living person.

Each of the book’s main characters longs for relationship, and they grope for connection. Stephen Chinn invents and algorithm to help him talk to women. Mary Bradford chooses her dog over all human companions, even if it isn’t so good for the dog. The Dettmans want to love each other, but they can’t figure out how. And Gaby White became so dependent on her toy Babybot that, when it was taken away, she, like many of her peers, froze up entirely.

At times, as in the story of Gaby, the book seems to dwell on the way technology hampers human connection and how we have allowed computers to determine too much of who we are. Chinn writes that

Since well before I set loose my robots, we’ve been a binary race. We mimic the patterns of our computers, training our brains toward yeses and nos, endless series of zeros and ones. We’ve lost confidence in our own minds.

But the struggle to connect goes back further than that, as we see in the story of Mary and her dog and her profound sense of aloneness. And although the Dettmans are touched by technology, their alienation is really about not knowing each other and making up their own versions of the truth. Ruth writes to Karl (in an unsent letter):

Do not, I thought to myself, make me a character in your little story. Don’t you dare transform me into a protagonist you like the idea of. Innocent, mournful, loyal to my dead little sister. Who is this woman? I thought to myself. She isn’t me. Me, who got on that boat without looking back. Who thought to fight for her sister only when there was an ocean between us.

At times, the characters’ musings about life and love and the futility (or not) of it all got tedious. I found Turing’s meandering letters particularly hard to  get excited about, although they fit in well with the themes Hall is exploring here. It’s just that his philosophizing got repetitive after a while and there wasn’t much happening within all that philosophizing. His letters improved slightly toward the end, when things did start happening, but those things were so sad that I’d almost rather they have stayed boring. But it’s a rare multi-voice novel that doesn’t have a weak link at all, so this isn’t much of a complaint.

When Other Jenny reviewed this a while back, she specifically indicated that she thought I would like it and that the things that bothered her about it would probably not bother me. Although I didn’t love, love, love this, I liked it quite a lot, and, unlike Jenny, I was not much bothered by the fact that the book raises more questions than it answers. As Jenny notes, all these many voices don’t have anything audacious to say, but I think the book is more about looking at the questions of communication and connection from lots of angles than it is about saying anything definitive beyond the fact that it’s hard and always has been. Technology just changes what the difficulties look like.

The book’s final note feels hopeful, that voices live on, even if artificially, which gives their lives meaning. But when you stop and really picture what Hall is offering, it looks bleak. It’s an ending that is pretty on paper, but would feel deeply unsettling in a movie. I don’t know what Hall’s actual intention was, but I appreciate that duality. And that may be where the book’s audacity lies, in leaving us with hope, but a false one.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments


nimona-by-noelle-stevensonWhenever the due date for my library books draws near, I take a look at the catalog listing to see if anyone has it on hold. If not, I breathe a sigh of relief and put the book on the back burner assuming that I’ll be able to renew it on the due date. (I do not renew ahead of time because that would mean losing two or three precious days, and I can’t have that!) However, every now and then someone sneaks in and puts a hold on the book so I have to return it on the due date or incur a fine. Sigh. That’s what happened with Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. Lucky for me, it was due today, and is a graphic novel, something easy and quick to read on my day off.


Nimona gets hired (from the webcomic version)

Nimona is a young shapeshifter looking to become a sidekick to a supervillain. Her villain of choice is the notorious Ballister Blackheart, nemesis to (and former friend of) Ambrosius Goldenloin. Blackheart lost his arm to Goldenloin in a duel when they were young, and their roles were sealed (as were their roles as assigned by the all-powerful Agency). Despite preferring to work alone, when Blackheart sees Nimona’s shape-shifting ability, he decides that she could be useful.

It’s quickly clear that Blackheart is not an especially villainous villain. He has plans and schemes, but he is constantly reminding Nimona that their plans don’t include killing. His plans are about science and uncovering the truth—and, okay, maybe a speck of revenge against Goldenloin. The two make a good pair, Nimona’s exuberance and bloodthirstiness complementing Blackheart seriousness and (dare I say?) gentleness. Together, they are formidable, and the Agency that governs the land has reason to fear when the pair uncovers their secret cache of deadly and illegal poison.

Nimona knowingly subverts the usual tropes about good and evil, science and magic, and the rule of law. All the characters are set up as established archetypes, but their individuality sets them against those archetypes. They behave as they do because they’re part of a system that sets rules and establishes roles. The system, as it turns out, is rigged against them, as it indeed so often is. And they all must figure out how to be true to themselves while acting within that system—or perhaps tearing the system down.

This is a very clever and enjoyable book that has serious undercurrents while maintaining a pleasant silliness on the surface. It began its life as a webcomic, and the opening chapters are still available online. Take a look!

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

The People in the Trees

people-in-the-treesTeresa had me read Hanya Yanagihara’s novel The People in the Trees for this year’s book swap. It’s a fascinating, complex novel about one of the most repellent narrators I’ve seen in years, and I was drawn in — as little as I sometimes wanted to be — from beginning to end.

The People in the Trees is the story of Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. It begins with a newspaper article about his arrest at the age of 71 for the sexual abuse of several of his 43 (!) adopted children, then moves to an introduction by Perina’s one remaining friend and apologist, Ronald Kubodera, a scientist who worked with him for years. Kubodera presents Perina’s own narrative about what he discovered and how he became famous, adding explanatory footnotes along the way.

Perina begins with a little biographical information about his youth, but quickly moves on to the meat of the story. As a young man, he signs up for an anthropological journey to a Micronesian island, Ivu’ivu. There, he discovers something so incredible that at first he refuses to believe it himself: a man who looks 65, but is actually well over 100 years old. When Perina finally gets one of the centuries-old Ivu’ivuan men to take him to the lake where the special opa’ivu’eke turtles live, the meat of which causes the people there to live so long, he immediately kills one of the turtles, hacks it up, and sneaks it off the island for experimentation.

Perina publishes a paper about his find — that the meat of the turtle causes impossibly, incredibly long life. Then, when he can no longer avoid it because a colleague is about to get the jump on him, he publishes a second paper, about the disastrous correlation: that the gift of long life is accompanied by senility and mental decline. But it’s too late. The island is overrun by pharmaceutical companies, cosmetic companies, and (eventually) missionaries. The people are destitute and corrupt. His own adopted children turn against him, and, eventually, so does the rest of the world — all except Kubodera, his lone loyal friend.

I should say at the outset that this book is an homage, or in places even a pastiche, of Nabokov. You can see it in the form of Kubodera offering Perina’s story with deprecating footnotes, as in Pale Fire; you can see it in Perina’s style, which gives us matter-of-fact accounts of his scientific exploits, expecting us to be on the side of a “great mind.”

I rather enjoyed killing the mice…. A little crick! and the neck would be broken. Sometimes Julian Turnbull and I would stand at either end of the long counter that ran down the middle of the mice lab, both of us whirling four or five mice in each lab, killing them in batches. It was a satisfying task, a small but real accomplishment to mark a day that, like so many other days, seemed devoid of structure, or progress, or meaning.

The other Nabokovian trick is that the book is full of disgust. Perina is disgusted by something on almost every page: mouse spleens (“soft and pulpy, like foie gras”), a meal at his mentor’s house (“another soup, this one seeming to consist purely of boiled onions and leeks and topped with a wet, suggestive coil of mustard”), his female colleague (“I shook her shoulder, and under her shirt her flesh was repulsive, a quaking blancmange, its surface pimpled with perspiration”), the manama fruit on Ivu’ivu (“disgustingly priapic, about eighteen inches long and fat as an eggplant, and that particular sugary newborn pink one finds only in tropical sunsets… Out of the cut squirmed a large writhing mass of grubs the approximate size and color of baby mice, which fell from the fruit to the ground and began wriggling off; against the moss of the floor they looked like rivulets of suddenly animated ground beef, worming their way toward some sort of salvation.”)

All this disgust contributes to a running sense of unease in the book. We, too, are disgusted, but less by grubs and women than by Perina himself. He is casually, obliviously cruel, to animals (as above) and to people. For a scientist, he is utterly incurious about the island:

Most of what we see in our immediate surroundings is in fact replicated elsewhere in the world with a sort of dull exactness: birds, animals, fruits, sky, people. They may look different from place to place, but their fundamental behaviors are essentially identical: birds tweet and flap, animals prowl and bleat, fruits are insensate and inanimate, the sky fills and empties of clouds and stars, people wear clothes and kill and eat and die.

When Perina finally twigs to the fact that he can profit from the situation in Ivu’ivu, he gets a little more interested, and begins to notice certain Ivu’ivuan ceremonies. But here things get twisty: Perina has already established that he is a cruel, selfish man, ready to take what he wants, and both his own justifications (“It had never occurred to me before Ivu’ivu that children might enjoy sexual relations, but in the village it seemed wholly natural.”) and Kubodera’s make us doubt whether his account of the ceremony is accurate. We have, after all, seen Eve’s reaction to an attempt at a vaginal exam.

If the book had ended with the destruction of the island, it would have been interesting enough, if a bit over the top with its metaphor of despoiled innocence. But it doesn’t stop there. Instead, we see Perina return to the island to adopt over 40 children over a couple of decades, searching for the innocence he saw “educated” in those Ivu’ivuan ceremonies. When his children rebel, when they demand an accounting for a white man taking their heritage, their ancestry, and even their names, Perina is baffled at their ingratitude. And when even Perina’s twin brother Owen (a Lolita-like doubling here) turns against him, he simply cannot understand it. What has he done, besides rescue children from poverty?

But we know. There is no core of compassion in this book, the way there is in Lolita or Pale Fire, but there is a core of uneasy disgust that tells us that Kubodera knows as well. And the ending makes up our mind on that score. (I wonder what the book would have been like if the ending had not made up our mind.)  We have to wonder: what next? Will Kubodera desert Perina, too, and leave him utterly alone? What other innocence could Perina destroy, when lands and friends and children are all gone?

Posted in Fiction | 17 Comments

The Sagas of Icelanders

sagas of icelandersFor several years now, I’ve adopted a practice of trying to read a major classic during the summer, when I (theoretically) have more time and brain-space for it. This year, I read The Sagas of Icelanders, the collection that Penguin put out 15 years ago with a  preface by Jane Smiley (why?) and an introduction by Robert Kellogg.

Yes, I noticed it’s not summer. Yes, I realize it’s November. Yes, I just finished it.

Sure, it’s 700 pages long, but I’ve tackled considerably longer. The fact that almost every character was named Thor-something was a little daunting, too (Thorstein, Thorodd, Thorgrim, Thorvald, Thorir, Thorolf, Thorgils, and their sister Thora) but after The Tale of Genji, I was up for anything in the name business.

The fact is that I wanted to savor this book. I’ve always been fascinated by Norse mythology because of the way it comes barreling out of left field: The world was licked into being by an ice cow! Odin rides an eight-legged horse, which is Loki’s child! The world will end when a ship made out of dead men’s fingernails arrives! Of course! Why not! These sagas were written mostly in the 12th and 13th century, harking back to a time a couple of hundred years earlier, so they balance on the cusp between Christian belief and Norse belief. The authors, Christians themselves, are writing about the conversation between the old beliefs and the new; the old Viking plundering, the Althing, the feuds and the outlawry; the travelers from Norway to the new land in Iceland, and the new kings in Norway and Sweden and Ireland and England who had a different way of ordering the world.

In one sub-story, two lazy brothers have a slave who is so efficient that he makes a lot of money. The brothers take all the slave’s money several times, to replace their own that they keep spending, but eventually they tell each other, “It’s not fair for a slave to have so much and for us to have so little,” and they kill him. It was at this point that I thought to myself, geez, they are not trying to write Christian parables, are they? And settled in for the ride.

The sagas are meant to be histories: real stories about real people and communities. They are family portraits, and even taking some exaggeration into account, they are lively and personal. In one, a beautiful and well-meaning woman falls in love with a suitor she cannot have. Her frustration leads her into other, unsuitable marriages. In another, a hot-headed, dangerous teenager is also a much-appreciated poet. In another, a man has a dream that his daughter will be so beautiful as to cause the death of two men. He tries to evade this fate by exposing her, but he’s no more successful than Laertes was with Oedipus. These stories are about jealousy and rivalry and greed and love and anger and exploration. People make rash decisions and they regret them; they play tricks and get in trouble; they get married and see what happens next. Some of the stories are violent, others are complex political stories about land, others are love stories, and others are extremely funny.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the sagas as such is that they feel so modern in form. We are trained by novels to expect a prose narrative about people like us — peers, whose everyday actions and thoughts and opinions have significance. We expect that those people’s personal traits will have an effect on the outcome of the story, and that the story will tell us something about social behavior and about the psychology of the people involved. But that form didn’t even begin until the 18th century. The currency of narrative in the Middle Ages was poetry (think about the Song of Roland or the Divine Comedy or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and even then it was about, and for, the nobility. These sagas are about farmers — wealthy farmers, no doubt, but farmers — and farm hands, and strong, gutsy women. They are written for other Icelanders, about exceptional characters. How did this happen? How did they even read them?

I enjoyed reading all the sagas in different ways, but I had two favorites. The Saga of the People of Laxardal has at its center a strong heroine, Gudrun Osvifsdottir. Women are more important in the sagas than in almost any other medieval literature I’ve ever read, as characters with their own personalities and roles to play, and even among these Gudrun stood out. In this saga, she has a dream towards the beginning that foreshadows her four marriages, but the actual circumstances and her reactions to them can’t be foretold. In a scene at the very end, her curious son asks his aged mother which of her husbands she loved best, because now she no longer has any reason to conceal it. Her strangely reluctant answer is very touching.

The Saga of Ref the Sly was (I thought) hilarious. It reminded me strongly of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles. Ref doesn’t boast of his abilities, he simply does everything better than everyone else and leaves his opponents with their mouths hanging open (or dead.) His enemies make a plan: sorry, he’s three steps ahead of you. They go to the king for advice: sorry, Ref has thought of that advice and has come up with a plan so extravagant that the enemies’ grandchildren will be talking about it. I’d explain the best trick Ref played, but it’s spoiler territory, and this is one you need to read yourself, along with the vulgar but side-splitting Tale of Sarcastic Halli.

I learned a lot from reading these sagas about everyday Viking life — what they eat and drink, how they arrange their sleeping quarters, what politics are like, how much it costs in recompense when you accidentally kill a man, or a goat — but mostly I just enjoyed living in this strange foreign world for a while. I enjoyed traveling to see the king of Ireland, or King Athelstan. I enjoyed the marriage celebrations. I enjoyed the seals on the starboard bow, and the glint of fire and gold in the dark. And I expect you would, too.

Posted in Classics, Nonfiction | 13 Comments


HangsamanMy review of this novel by Shirley Jackson could perhaps be summed up thusly:

?????? What even was that?

Not much of a post, though, so I guess I’ll say more. Hangsaman (what does that title even mean??) is the story of Natalie Waite, who is 17 years old and preparing to go to a college for women. Her home life is strange and creepy in a way I can’t put my finger on, other than to say her father is a domineering ass who has taken great care to mold Natalie into precisely the daughter he wants. When Natalie goes away to college, she struggles at first to make friends, but then eventually finds herself in a small circle that includes a popular English professor, his wife, and two older students. The unease continues. Then she makes a solitary friend, a fellow student named Tony. They decide to go on an adventure together, and it is all unease all the time, and then a thing happens, and I don’t even know what it was.

Yet I liked this book.

There are several things that I think made this book work for me, regardless of how baffled I am by it. First, Jackson does sinister weirdness extremely well. She could write a book in which nothing bad at all happens, and it may still give me the creeps. Second, much of the narrative about Natalie’s journey to figure herself out seemed really true to life and very wise about the difficulty of extricating yourself from parents and finding your own way. Natalie, for lots of reasons, is not well-equipped to do that. Her father manipulates her well, and she’s dealing with a secret trauma that would throw anyone off. (At least, I think she is. Pretty sure she is.)

As unsettling as Natalie’s mind is, I enjoyed some of the things she did. One of my favorite scenes involved her being drawn into an initiation ritual and just refusing to participate. It doesn’t do her much good, but I loved it. And there’s something beguiling and understandable about her drive to solitude, her way of taking possession of her room and seeing it as a refuge. It’s only late in the book that we learn that her form of taking possession involves things like having most of her furniture removed and hanging her wastebasket out the window. As the underlying feeling of strangeness builds and builds, it’s hard to tell what is actually happening.

I don’t know if it’s fortunate or not that I read this immediately after Human Croquet, in which an incident with a tree sets a story in motion. This book, similarly, has a wood that appears near the beginning, where Natalie is (probably) sexually assaulted, and there’s another near the end where Natalie and Tony go together. When I got to that final scene in the wood, I kept flipping back wanting to see the connection between these two woods, but the dots are never quite connected. The echoes are strong, however, strong enough for me to wonder how much of the story actually takes place in the wood. And then there’s this, the morning after she’s first attacked (seduced? raped?) in the woods. Natalie is at the breakfast table, observing her family and thinking about what happened:

She knew, incredibly, that if she spoke she would tell them what had happened; not because she so much desired to tell, that she wanted to tell even them, but because this was not a personal manifestation, but had changed them all in changing the world, in the sense that they only existed in Natalie’s imagination anyway, so that the revolution in the world had altered their faces and made their hearts smaller.

If you’ve read Hangsamen, what did you make of it? Was any of it even real? Have you ever really enjoyed a book that made no actual sense?

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 12 Comments

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

My Bright AbyssThis book by poet Christian Wiman is not easy to describe. It’s not exactly a memoir, although it contains elements of memoir, and it’s not exactly an essay collection, although each chapter dances around a particular theme or idea. His subtitle gives us perhaps the best word for what it is—a series of meditations. The first chapter opens like this:

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:

And there the poem ends. Or fails, rather, for in the several years since I first wrote that stance I have been trying to feel my way—to will my way—into its ending. Poems in general are not especially susceptible to the will, but this one, for obvious reasons, has proved particularly intractable. As if it weren’t hard enough to articulate one’s belief, I seem to have wanted to distill it into a single stanza.

The rest of the book contains Wiman’s musings on what he does believe, about God, art, life, and death. Much of the book is colored by Wiman’s cancer diagnosis, which brought death close. It seems trite to also say that it also brought him to God, because this is not a book about conversion in the face of death. He and his wife were already taking tentative steps toward prayer and faith when the diagnosis came, and after the diagnosis, they went to church.

The thing is, to describe the events as they happened ends up making this sounds like any other conversation story, any other cancer story, like sermons I’ve heard a million times. I’ve probably heard these stories a million times because they’re true, because conversions do happen that way. But so many of those stories flatten out the experience, make it all seem simple. Incipient death led to longing for God, so something good could come out of tragedy. This book does not tell that kind of story. I would have had zero patience for it if it had.

Wiman’s faith is just a thing that is. It doesn’t make things easier, at least it doesn’t consistently, and it doesn’t ease his mind about the end. It’s not a faith of easy answers to difficult questions. It’s a faith of leaning in to the difficult questions, knowing that in all those difficulties God is there, without knowing exactly what that even means. Early on in the book, Wiman writes:

If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me. Just when I think I’ve finally found some balance between active devotion and honest modern consciousness, all my old anxieties come pressuring up through the seams of me, and I am as volatile and paralyzed as ever. I can’t tell which is worse, standing numb and apart from the world, wanting Being to burn me awake, or feeling that fire too acutely to crave anything other than escape into everydayness. What I do know is that the turn toward God has not lessened my anxieties, and I find myself continually falling back into wounds, wishes, and terrors I thought I had risen beyond.

Earlier this year, I was touched by a particularly horrifying and shocking tragedy that has put me in a darker place spiritually than I’ve been in many years. And it’s hard. It’s especially hard when you’re told that Christians are supposed to be able to pull themselves up out of pain. So words like Wiman’s were like balm to my soul. It’s not just me.

Wiman’s style shows that the spiritual life isn’t always a linear path. Besides showing himself sinking into anxiety, as in the passage below, he also often comments on his writing as he goes, responding, sometimes years later, to the paragraph written above. This book is articulate and powerful, but it isn’t tidy.

I could fill this post with quote after quote about the nature of love, doing theology through art, and the role of Christ in the individual believer’s life. There’s so much in this book that chimed for me, but what I appreciated the most was that he articulated ideas that I feel but find hard to express. The only book I’ve encountered to address suffering nearly this well was C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which is about a different kind of suffering, but has a similarly raw honesty. This is a book I’ll keep close at hand, to dip into when I need it. I expect I’ll continue to need it for a while.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Religion, Short Stories/Essays | 8 Comments